Tags: engineering

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Wednesday, October 4th, 2017

This Future Looks Familiar: Watching Blade Runner in 2017 | Tor.com

If you subtract the flying cars and the jets of flame shooting out of the top of Los Angeles buildings, it’s not a far-off place. It’s fortunes earned off the backs of slaves, and deciding who gets to count as human. It’s impossible tests with impossible questions and impossible answers. It’s having empathy for the right things if you know what’s good for you. It’s death for those who seek freedom.

A thought-provoking first watch of Blade Runner …with an equally provocative interpretation in the comments:

The tragedy is not that they’re just like people and they’re being hunted down; that’s way too simplistic a reading. The tragedy is that they have been deliberately built to not be just like people, and they want to be and don’t know how.

That’s what really struck me about Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go: the tragedy is that these people can’t take action. “Run! Leave! Go!” you want to scream at them, but you might as well tell someone “Fly! Why don’t you just fly?”

Wednesday, September 27th, 2017

The Coming Software Apocalypse - The Atlantic

The title is pure clickbait, and the moral panic early in this article repeats the Toyota myth, but then it settles down into a fascinating examination of abstractions in programming. On the one hand, there’s the problem of the not enough abstraction: having to write in code is such a computer-centric way of building things. On the other hand, our world is filled with dangerously abstracted systems:

When your tires are flat, you look at your tires, they are flat. When your software is broken, you look at your software, you see nothing.

So that’s a big problem.

Bret Victor, John Resig and Margaret Hamilton are featured. Doug Engelbart and J.C.R. Licklider aren’t mentioned but their spirits loom large.

Sunday, June 18th, 2017

Beyond Curie—a design project celebrating women in STEM

Beyond Curie is a design project that highlights badass women in science, technology, engineering + mathematics. 

Sunday, April 16th, 2017

Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?

This wide-ranging essay by Nick Nielsen on Centauri Dreams has a proposition that resonates with my current talk about evaluating technology:

Science produces knowledge, but technology only selects that knowledge from the scientific enterprise that can be developed for practical uses.

Then there’s this:

The most remarkable feature of how we got from the origins of our species to the complex and sophisticated civilization we have today is that, with few exceptions, none of it was planned. Technology was not planned; civilization was not planned; industrialization was not planned; the internet was not planned.

Friday, March 17th, 2017

The Ray Cat Solution

A website dedicated to one of the most, um, interesting solutions to the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste storage problem:

  1. Engineer cats that change colour in response to radiation.
  2. Create the culture/legend/history that if your cat changes colour, you should move some place else.

There are T-shirts!

Thursday, January 19th, 2017

Trump: A Resister’s Guide | Harper’s Magazine - Part 11

You, the software engineers and leaders of technology companies, face an enormous responsibility. You know better than anyone how best to protect the millions who have entrusted you with their data, and your knowledge gives you real power as civic actors. If you want to transform the world for the better, here is your moment. Inquire about how a platform will be used. Encrypt as much as you can. Oppose the type of data analysis that predicts people’s orientation, religion, and political preferences if they did not willingly offer that information.

Thursday, January 5th, 2017

Going rogue

As soon as tickets were available for the Brighton premiere of Rogue One, I grabbed some—two front-row seats for one minute past midnight on December 15th. No problem. That was the night after the Clearleft end-of-year party on December 14th.

Then I realised how dates work. One minute past midnight on December 15th is the same night as December 14th. I had double-booked myself.

It’s a nice dilemma to have; party or Star Wars? I decided to absolve myself of the decision by buying additional tickets for an evening showing on December 15th. That way, I wouldn’t feel like I had to run out of the Clearleft party before midnight, like some geek Cinderella.

In the end though, I did end up running out of the Clearleft party. I had danced and quaffed my fill, things were starting to get messy, and frankly, I was itching to immerse myself in the newest Star Wars film ever since Graham strapped a VR headset on me earlier in the day and let me fly a virtual X-wing.

Getting in the mood for Rogue One with the Star Wars Battlefront X-Wing VR mission—invigorating! (and only slightly queasy-making)

So, somewhat tired and slightly inebriated, I strapped in for the midnight screening of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.

I thought it was okay. Some of the fan service scenes really stuck out, and not in a good way. On the whole, I just wasn’t that gripped by the story. Ah, well.

Still, the next evening, I had those extra tickets I had bought as psychological insurance. “Why not?” I thought, and popped along to see it again.

This time, I loved it. It wasn’t just me either. Jessica was equally indifferent the first time ‘round, and she also enjoyed it way more the second time.

I can’t recall having such a dramatic swing in my appraisal of a film from one viewing to the next. I’m not quite sure why it didn’t resonate the first time. Maybe I was just too tired. Maybe I was overthinking it too much, unable to let myself get caught up in the story because I was over-analysing it as a new Star Wars film. Anyway, I’m glad that I like it now.

Much has been made of its similarity to classic World War Two films, which I thought worked really well. But the aspect of the film that I found most thought-provoking was the story of Galen Erso. It’s the classic tale of an apparently good person reluctantly working in service to evil ends.

This reminded me of Mother Night, perhaps my favourite Kurt Vonnegut book (although, let’s face it, many of his books are interchangeable—you could put one down halfway through, and pick another one up, and just keep reading). Mother Night gives the backstory of Howard W. Campbell, who appears as a character in Slaughterhouse Five. In the introduction, Vonnegut states that it’s the one story of his with a moral:

We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.

If Galen Erso is pretending to work for the Empire, is there any difference to actually working for the Empire? In this case, there’s a get-out clause for this moral dilemma: by sabotaging the work (albeit very, very subtly) Galen’s soul appears to be absolved of sin. That’s the conclusion of the excellent post on the Sci-fi Policy blog, Rogue One: an ‘Engineering Ethics’ Story:

What Galen Erso does is not simply watch a system be built and then whistleblow; he actively shaped the design from its earliest stages considering its ultimate societal impacts. These early design decisions are proactive rather than reactive, which is part of the broader engineering ethics lesson of Rogue One.

I know I’m Godwinning myself with the WWII comparisons, but there are some obvious historical precedents for Erso’s dilemma. The New York Review of Books has an in-depth look at Werner Heisenberg and his “did he/didn’t he?” legacy with Germany’s stalled atom bomb project. One generous reading of his actions is that he kept the project going in order to keep scientists from being sent to the front, but made sure that the project was never ambitious enough to actually achieve destructive ends:

What the letters reveal are glimpses of Heisenberg’s inner life, like the depth of his relief after the meeting with Speer, reassured that things could safely tick along as they were; his deep unhappiness over his failure to explain to Bohr how the German scientists were trying to keep young physicists out of the army while still limiting uranium research work to a reactor, while not pursuing a fission bomb; his care in deciding who among friends and acquaintances could be trusted.

Speaking of Albert Speer, are his hands are clean or dirty? And in the case of either answer, is it because of moral judgement or sheer ignorance? The New Atlantis dives deep into this question in Roger Forsgren’s article The Architecture of Evil:

Speer indeed asserted that his real crime was ambition — that he did what almost any other architect would have done in his place. He also admitted some responsibility, noting, for example, that he had opposed the use of forced labor only when it seemed tactically unsound, and that “it added to my culpability that I had raised no humane and ethical considerations in these cases.” His contrition helped to distance himself from the crude and unrepentant Nazis standing trial with him, and this along with his contrasting personal charm permitted him to be known as the “good Nazi” in the Western press. While many other Nazi officials were hanged for their crimes, the court favorably viewed Speer’s initiative to prevent Hitler’s scorched-earth policy and sentenced him to twenty years’ imprisonment.

I wish that these kinds of questions only applied to the past, but they are all-too relevant today.

Software engineers in the United States are signing a pledge not to participate in the building of a Muslim registry:

We refuse to participate in the creation of databases of identifying information for the United States government to target individuals based on race, religion, or national origin.

That’s all well and good, but it might be that a dedicated registry won’t be necessary if those same engineers are happily contributing their talents to organisations whose business models are based on the ability to track and target people.

But now we’re into slippery slopes and glass houses. One person might draw the line at creating a Muslim registry. Someone else might draw the line at including any kind of invasive tracking script on a website. Someone else again might decide that the line is crossed by including Google Analytics. It’s moral relativism all the way down. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t draw lines. Of course it’s hard to live in an ideal state of ethical purity—from the clothes we wear to the food we eat to the electricity we use—but a muddy battleground is still capable of having a line drawn through it.

The question facing the fictional characters Galen Erso and Howard W. Campbell (and the historical figures of Werner Heisenberg and Albert Speer) is this: can I accomplish less evil by working within a morally repugnant system than being outside of it? I’m sure it’s the same question that talented designers ask themselves before taking a job at Facebook.

At one point in Rogue One, Galen Erso explicitly invokes the justification that they’d find someone else to do this work anyway. It sounds a lot like Tim Cook’s memo to Apple staff justifying his presence at a roundtable gathering that legitimised the election of a misogynist bigot to the highest office in the land. I’m sure that Tim Cook, Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, and Sheryl Sandberg all think they are playing the part of Galen Erso but I wonder if they’ll soon find themselves indistinguishable from Orson Krennic.

Wednesday, December 21st, 2016

Rogue One: an ‘Engineering Ethics’ Story — SciFi Policy

This article examines what I thought was the most interesting aspect of Rogue One—the ethical implications for technologists.

Don’t dismiss this essay just because it’s about a Hollywood blockbuster. Given the current political situation, this is deeply relevant.

Friday, October 14th, 2016

Technical Credit by Chris Taylor

Riffing on an offhand comment I made about progressive enhancement being a form of “technical credit”, Chris dives deep into what exactly that means. There’s some really great thinking here.

With such a wide array of both expected and unexpected properties of the current technological revolution, building our systems in such a way to both be resilient to potential failures and benefit from unanticipated events surely is a no-brainer.

Wednesday, July 27th, 2016

The Woman Who Put Men On The Moon [Comic]

Margaret Hamilton:

Never let fear get in the way! Don’t be afraid to continue even when things appear to be impossible, even when the so-called “experts” say it is impossible. Don’t be afraid to stand alone, to be different, to be wrong, to make and admit mistakes, for only those who dare to fail greatly can ever achieve greatly.

Saturday, March 5th, 2016

Journal of Design and Science

A new publication from MIT. It deliberately avoids the jargon that’s often part and parcel of peer-reviewed papers, and all of the articles are published under a Creative Commons attribution licence.

The first issue is dedicated to Marvin Minsky and features these superb articles, all of which are independently excellent but together form an even greater whole…

Design and Science by Joi Ito:

When the cybernetics movement began, the focus of science and engineering was on things like guiding a ballistic missile or controlling the temperature in an office. These problems were squarely in the man-made domain and were simple enough to apply the traditional divide-and-conquer method of scientific inquiry.

Science and engineering today, however, is focused on things like synthetic biology or artificial intelligence, where the problems are massively complex. These problems exceed our ability to stay within the domain of the artificial, and make it nearly impossible for us to divide them into existing disciplines.

Age of Entanglement by Neri Oxman:

This essay proposes a map for four domains of creative exploration—Science, Engineering, Design and Art—in an attempt to represent the antidisciplinary hypothesis: that knowledge can no longer be ascribed to, or produced within, disciplinary boundaries, but is entirely entangled.

Design as Participation by Kevin Slavin:

The designers of complex adaptive systems are not strictly designing systems themselves. They are hinting those systems towards anticipated outcomes, from an array of existing interrelated systems. These are designers that do not understand themselves to be in the center of the system. Rather, they understand themselves to be participants, shaping the systems that interact with other forces, ideas, events and other designers. This essay is an exploration of what it means to participate.

The Enlightenment is Dead, Long Live the Entanglement by Danny Hillis:

As our technological and institutional creations have become more complex, our relationship to them has changed. We now relate to them as we once related to nature. Instead of being masters of our creations, we have learned to bargain with them, cajoling and guiding them in the general direction of our goals. We have built our own jungle, and it has a life of its own.

Friday, February 27th, 2015

Access Optional - TimKadlec.com

It will come as no surprise that I agree with every single word that Tim has written here.

Tuesday, June 17th, 2014

Girls Imagineer the Future | Curiosity Hub Event

Jacqueline Currie is running Robotics/Bioengineering/Computing workshops for girls (ages 6-16) this Saturday at the University of Brighton.

Tuesday, April 2nd, 2013

Check you’re wearing trousers first by Robert Heaton

Some cautionary tales of over-engineering solutions before doing some quick user-testing to establish what the real problems are.

It’s a pleasant delusion to believe that all our problems require hard solutions.

Monday, August 20th, 2012

RayFish Footwear - Grow your own sneaker

I’m trying to figure out which forthcoming sci-fi work this guerrilla marketing site is promoting—featuring customised shoes from bio-engineered stingray—but I’m not having any luck.

Friday, March 2nd, 2012

Solve for X: Neal Stephenson on getting big stuff done - YouTube

Neal Stephenson speaks at Solve For X on the relative timidity of scientific (and science fictional) progress in our current time.

Sunday, August 21st, 2011

Project Icarus

A joint effort by the Tau Zero Foundation and the British Interplanetary Society to research the design of an interstellar spacecraft.

Wednesday, April 28th, 2010

An Archaeological Approach to SETI

The search for Dyson spheres.

Friday, July 3rd, 2009

Inflatable Tower Promises Easy Access to Outer Space: Discovery News

An alternative to the space elevator, an inflatable tower nine miles tall and tethered to a mountain top, could be made of commercially available materials.

Tuesday, November 25th, 2008

Spacehack

This looks wonderful: "a directory of ways to participate in space exploration." I'll be keeping my eye on the Elevator:2010 project.